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Arizona playing with top-ranked poise

12/14/2013



ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- There is no award for being No. 1 in November or December.

Kentucky and Michigan State, which both have held the top spot already this season and slipped, proved that.

But No. 1 Arizona might deserve something for its efforts, putting together possibly the most impressive string of nonconference victories this season.

The Wildcats might just get something; it’s just that their payoff would come later. Because more so than other teams, they’re doing the things as a No. 1 team in December that will make it easier to be No. 1 in April.

The Wildcats have picked up wins away from home over San Diego State, Duke (at Madison Square Garden) and, on Saturday, Michigan in a 72-70, come-from-behind victory in a jam-packed, maized-out Crisler Center.

Those experiences could mean something in March.

“When you say we went to San Diego State, played Duke at The Garden -- which is basically a home for them -- and then we went to Michigan, we’ve been tested,” Arizona guard Nick Johnson said. “And I think the country is starting to see that, that we’re not just a West Coast team that stays at home or a top team that stays at home and just plays easy teams.”

In the first six weeks of the season, the Wildcats have made strides in their maturity. Their post trio of Aaron Gordon, Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski are jelling as a unit, playing better together every game.

They tore up Michigan’s post defense at times, throwing passes with the vision of guards, and finished the day scoring 46 points and pulling in 20 boards, just four fewer than Michigan’s entire team.

As a team, Arizona showed the poise and levelheadedness of veterans late in the game, fouling at the right moments and eating up the clock at others. And when the Wildcats clawed back to take the lead late in the game, it was Johnson at the line for critical free throws.

Did he feel pressure? With not only the game but also the perfect season and the No. 1 ranking on the line, did that get to him? With the fact that his team didn’t get to shoot Friday night at the Crisler Center and that his first shots at this arena came just an hour and a half before tip?

“No,” Johnson said. “We’ve been working for this for so long. My team trusts in me. So there’s no pressure.”

He went 6-for-6 from the line in the final 30 seconds of the game. Those are the kind of shots that Arizona will need in March and April. That confidence too.

The Wildcats are putting to bed some of the stereotypes that exist about basketball outside of the Big Ten and ACC.

“You know,” Aaron Gordon said, “the West Coast is soft.”

“You don’t have to ask me that, I think you know,” he added. “You’ve heard the stereotypes. … But they’re completely false, like a lot of stereotypes are.”

Their performance against the Wolverines was anything but soft. The referees let the players play, and bodies flew, on both sides of the court. The Wildcats grabbed 13 more rebounds than the Wolverines, just a shade under its season average margin of plus-14.3.

Arizona made halftime adjustments that paid off -- holding Glenn Robinson III to four second-half points and Michigan to six 3-point attempts.

Mostly, the Wildcats' attitude remained consistent. From when they walked out of the tunnel to getting on the bus, there were intermittent smiles, but it resembled the grin of a marathoner at Mile 6.

When Nik Stauskas’ Hail Mary heave at the buzzer fell short, the Arizona fans who made the trip shouted, but the rest of the team acted as if it was business as usual. The work in Ann Arbor was done, and it was on to the next challenge.

The Wildcats had made a statement, but it wasn’t big enough. And the biggest one of all won’t come for months. So for now, they’ll keep their energy and heads in check, knowing how quickly all of this could change.

“A few weeks ago, we were chasing No. 1,” Johnson said. “And now, we’re still chasing it. We want to be the No. 1 team in the country for as long as we can. We’re just going to take it one game at a time.”

One game at a time until April. That’s their plan.